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From Stigma to Understanding: Part II

Posted at: 02/12/2013 5:28 PM
Updated at: 02/12/2013 10:47 PM
By: Maarja Anderson
manderson@wdio.com

Glenn Wallen is a 47-year-old Duluthian, born and raised in Proctor. Diagnosed with Bipolar disorder 28 years ago, Glenn shares his story with others to help shed light on an issue shadowed by stereotypes.

"It was awful scary, not knowing what was going on," said Glenn.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Glenn is one of almost six million Americans diagnosed with Bipolar disorder every year. Glenn said he always felt different growing up, and at 19-years-old he realized something wasn't quite right.

"I was kind of acting out, strange bizarre behaviors, walking around and picking-up rocks and feeling some kind of connection to them," Glenn said.

Glenn began to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. He was in and out of detox, halfway homes and even psych wards until one day in his mid-20s, Glenn decided to seek help. He started to ask questions, seeing a therapist, and he is now on a daily medication. For Glenn, each day gets easier, but he will live with Bipolar disorder forever.

"I guess what I try to do today is just focus on what I can do, and not on the stuff that I can't," said Glenn.

The nation has focused on mental health and guns since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Mental health professionals say the debate reinforces the unfair stereotype that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous.

While Glenn sought help, mental health professionals say not everyone has the courage or support system to come forward.

That's why Nancy Minihan, a retired psychologist, is on the Board of Directors with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)- Duluth Area. Her family experience prompted her to join the group.

"I'm in NAMI because my mother suffered from depression, but she would never be able to say that. She could not say that she was depressed," said Minihan.

NAMI is support group for people struggling with a mental illness. They also have meetings for families and friends. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, the hardest part can be picking up the phone and making the first call for help.

As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, Scott Poupore-Haats, says a lack of understanding prevents people from seeking help.

"You think, 'I'm an intelligent women, I'll just think myself out of this.' But, no," said Poupore-Haats.

Dr. Carolyn Phelps with the Human Development Center, says mental illness should be treated like any physical illness.

"[Some think] people who have a mental illness are weak and could get over it if they wanted to, but that certainly isn't true, and it's no more true that you could get over pneumonia or cancer if you wanted to," explained Dr. Phelps.

Dr. Phelps has dedicated her life work to erasing the stigma. She said not many people talk about mental health openly, but it's more common than we think. One in four Americans can expect to have a mental health problem sometime during their life, Dr. Phelps added.

"And when we say one in four, that means you know somebody, if it's not you, it's one of your friends or one of your family members," expanded Dr. Phelps.

According to NAMI, in any given year, 57.7 million Americans will experience a mental health disorder and only one-third of adults that need it receive help. While asking for help may be the hardest step, those on the journey say it is worth it.

"I wouldn't trade it for the world," said Glenn.